F**k Purpose! 4 Reasons Why New Narratives Cement the Old Status Quo and Avoid the Real Work — and Why Good Is the New Black

When Simple Slogans Are Not Enough… (Image from the Internet)
Cogito, ergo sum. Or Not. (Image from the internet)
Lost in Holism. (Image from the Internet)
What matters most, is not Why but Who we are.
  • Some people have found the use of expletives questionable. We will claim that: righteous anger about the current state of affairs is fully justified (and often diluted by moral disengagement — when deficiencies of our neoliberal system are simply taken for granted); the usage of strong language — whether we like it or not — in publishing has become mainstream and morally acceptable; research shows that swear words can be virtuous communication devices; some of our academic role models have adopted it to positive effect. When some people feel strongly about such terms, they may want to consider that, as someone wisely suggested: “there are no indecent books, only there are indecent readers”
  • https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/science-swearing-profanity-curse-emma-byrne
  • https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2631787719897663
  • C: I thought fork purpose was to work synergistically with knife…
  • C: I thought it was Furk Purpose which apparently have multiple meanings :)
  • C: Purpose, if any, is only for those who leverage the businesses as tools to their advantage. A car going to a destination doesn’t have any specific mission to attain, the driver may possibly have. That said, statements about mission, identity, purpose, etc, may help advance certain purposes: say, these offer a marketing advantage; also motivate workers to commit more. Some of these act like self fulfilling prophesies and create the semblance that businesses have standalone purposes.
  • A: That is a rather restrictive use of the term. A business is not a machine (your car analogy), but a collective endeavour to achieve something. We argue that purpose in that context must be both legitimised by its morality as well as its societal embeddedness, beyond considerations of viability. In other words, an organisation is “owned” by its constituents and ultimately society at large, not just “its driver”…
  • C: Agree fully with your approach here but we have to be careful with definitions. I see morality as something that shifts with time, tribes and geography. Ethics is based on the “good” in humanity and does not change. Hence the term “ethics in business” is exactly right.
  • A: Good point! — as usual, lots of taxonomy here :-). There is both normative and descriptive morality and definitions vary. For this piece we have taken a simplistic perspective of morality = normative morality based on teleology. Whereas ethics = right action. That certainly is not the only way to look at it… https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/
  • C: There is a ‘narrative of inadequacy’ that permeates much of contemporary ‘orgspeak’… unless one brings one’s whole self to work, expresses passion, works with purpose, and/or other forms of performative authenticity…. ‘there is a problem’ requiring some form of intervention (aka corrective cosmetics). Consumerism works on the inside as well as the outside of organisational life.
  • C: I have spent quite a bit of time pondering what decades of work on my part amounted to. I am still not sure, except I that I started working 48 years ago and it’s a long voyage. I am trying to stay away from words like ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ and ‘mission’ or ‘company culture’. Many of these words have been gutted of their significance and become empty vessels. I realized that our time is precious. We can always work more. We cannot make up for the time we did not spend on other things, books, music, friends, idleness, fishing. My wisdom is to ‘Spend more time doing less’ and move myself at some point in that time frame to the south of France (near Toulouse) and live alongside the same lines of spending more time doing less.
  • A: Bill Torbert always said we need a theory of leisure — in classical economics, leisure is just “the absence of work”. So much for the “dismal science”…
  • C: The theory of leisure started with Baudelaire more than a century ago with his idea of The Flaneur. Sociologists have been on the case for decades.
  • C: I do not agree that purpose is based on morality. Morality implies that Society plays a role in determining what is right and wrong, and for me that is not good enough. Purpose is indeed in service to what is good for all but it is not something we consciously create. It is something that comes to life “through us” (individually or as an organization) as opposed to being created “by us”. Following it is the best compass we will ever have for right and wrong, much better than Morality. Altogether, the source of right and wrong is inside us, not coming from outside. And to avoid any doubt, it is not coming from the head.
  • A: Unfortunately these questions are never simple and dont have single answers. We are taking a stance here saying that a good morality is based on telos, ie an essential “goodness”, however derived. This is the idea of “normative morality”, as opposed to “descriptive morality” — see also John’s point below. However, I think to argue that purpose is “something we do not consciously create” is very hard — how would you “unconsciously create” and how can you then use something that is allegedly unconscious in conscious judgment? What would be an “inner source” for what is right — on what basis? And how would you know it is form the inside — what is the epistemology here? Morality, like identity, is in our thinking a relational concept, ie it is defined not just by ourselves but through interaction with our world. That does not mean it is subjective. It is exactly that: a compass for what is right or wrong — and that is contingent on the society we are part of. Moreover, the somewhat romantic and individualistic perspective of “purpose is in us” in our view is not right — we argue here that we acquire purpose from stepping into a societal or systemic role. Identity is not something we can determine on our own.
  • C: It is indeed not easy to discuss in a post. I agree with many of your points but I disagree that the perspective that “purpose is in us” is romantic and individualistic perspective. And yes, we cannot rationalize it because it relates to our intuition, inner spirit, spirituality, however you want to call it. It is indeed our need to rationalize it that separates us from our innate best source of wisdom.
  • A: I personally think we have to go a bit further here — indeed hard in posts. That is also exactly why we are on this UNNERVING journey into comparative philosophical systems ;-) because it is philosophy — and I know i am preaching to the converted — that gives us the very tools for the analysis of how we think, what we know, how we see the world. In that context, I see a need to be more specific when we speak about notions of “spirit” which again is incredibly undefined. If only to clarify what ontology and epistemology it is based on, how it compares to the other systems, and why we believe in it. And that does not necessarily mean all rational (ie instrumental) analysis, but it entails “thinking about thinking”. Any notion that “thinking is not a good idea” I reckon requires some unpacking. By the same token, the processes that make up intuition — whilst non-analytical — are learned, not innate. It is not the same as instinct or insight, as intuition is an experience-based and gradual process. So whilst I might be “sensing the correct solution” without being able to give reasons for it, the reasons might very well be embedded in a wrong acquired paradigm…
  • C: I gather from the foregoing that you are not a fan of the Mercier-Sperber argumentative theory of reason? The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning suggests: “not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.” “Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.” This view on reasoning is most provocative as “reasoning is not about truth but about convincing others when trust alone is not enough. Doing so may seem irrational, but it is in fact social intelligence at its best.” https://www.edge.org/conversation/hugo_mercier-the-argumentative-theory
  • A: Very interesting! We need to “think” more about what that could imply. I still would suggest that based on these insights “thinking about thinking” might be a good idea, albeit that we are not good at it :-)
  • C: As a coach and consultant, i often find organizations and leaders in pain due to loss of meaning. The more aware ones realize that cycles of pain and pleasure do not give meaning back. I have often found it useful for such folks to focus on their TALENTS and their PASSIONS. This ignition of spirit starts giving meaning. However as you said, its the morality that engages and creates sense of purpose and not only meaning. Hence the work — and often difficult work — is to get leaders and organizations to discover actual IMPACT they make to people and context. And when that magical moment of awareness happens MEANING finds a PURPOSE to channel itself into.
  • A: Great framing! I was thinking very similarly when we wrote this. And fully admitting that maybe we are interpreting a too much sometimes into words and taxonomy- like you, I think there is something in it. Somewhere, as Max Weber said, we hit the wall if we are engaging in a search for purpose just “within ourselves”. In my experience, it cannot work. We are on the one hand embedded in society — and our very identity is always socially constructed, and on the other hand there is a deeper question of spirituality which as Manfred Kets de Vries once said is like “our soul knocking at the ego’s door”. Freud allegedly said that every coaching with a coachee >35 years becomes “life coaching”, and spirituality is born from the fear of death. So there is something that transcends our hedonic meaning-making and desperately seeks for spiritual significance and faith in something to give our lives deeper relevance. And that can never come from just within ourselves — it might not all be about our roles, but I find it a very good heuristic. As Alfred Adler once suggested: if you haven’t quite figured out your life’s purpose yet, start by serving others. And that I think is exactly what comes through societal roles.
  • C: To play devil’s advocate here: I see a huge problem in the fact that not every business has a purpose that deserves its name. So, what remains for them except purpose-washing?
  • For all those of you who are looking for even more “inspiration”, check out companies’ annual CSR reports. Best material ever 😂 (in my PhD I compared shiny corporate communication statements of five big Corp on CSR and sustainability efforts with — the rather not so shining — business reality. Very illuminating, revealing, and frustrating)
  • My particular interests are around 1. the staggering level of slaughter and carnage of working people in the global workforce all for a profit motive. 2. the plunder of workers pay | benefits | employment conditions in order to give that cash to owners | employers | executives instead enabled by those empathetic leaders and HR parasites. 3. The gimmickry, connivance and fraud of the ‘work well-being phenomenon’ within context of 1. & 2 — “we will pilfer your pay and probably harm you badly, maybe even kill you — but here’s a well-being app | an EAP | a mental health first aider | yoga | free fruit Fridays | etc. — you’ll be fine…‼️”
  • I work on women’s health in global supply chains. Everything around health is addressed through the narrow prism of occupational health and safety — critically important — but there is the assumption that business, in your words, is in a bubble where other work health rights, such as access to quality services, has no application to workers the minute they cross the threshold of the workplace. It also affects how you think about health — from a labor OSH perspective which is about compliance and to public health perspective about quality and needs.
  • C: Mary Parker Follett (1868–1933) would have agreed with you:
    “The true test of our morality is not the rigidity with which we adhere to standard, but the loyalty we show to the life which construct standards…. The truth is the same process which creates all else creates the very purpose. (P)urpose is involved in the process, not prior to the process. The whole philosophy of cause-and-effect must be rewritten.”
  • http://www.davidkhurst.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Thoroughly-Modern-Mary-Parker-Follett-Spring-1992.pdf
  • C: Ouch….the emperor’s new clothes properly exposed….and really valuable food for thought. The systemic changes we desperately need for our survival require deep thought and, authentic (measurable) action, and effective collaboration like never before.
  • C: hey, sometimes I also like Simon Sineks posts ;-) other than that — amen!
  • A: I guess reading Simon S’s post is a matter of personal taste — our challenge here is not ad hominem, but towards the tendency of many to quickly embrace the undue superficiality of popular messages without sufficient reflection, and believe they have the problem framed and under control.
  • C: the problem you seem to address here is the reception rather than the messaging. Expecting a deep reflection based on a social media post is a little too much to ask for when people hardly manage to read books anymore.
  • A: I must admit you are probably very right! :-) O temporae, o mores!!
  • C: it might be superficial I agree that we’re missing more reflection and certainly action from this, BUT if you reach 3 people and 100% reflect/take action or you reach 3'000 people and 3% reflect/take action, wasn’t the superficial more impactful at the end?
  • A: I am rather doubtful :-). Firstly, I guess the question must be asked of who you are reaching, and, secondly, simplistic posts will often not contribute to true reflection, but rather perpetuate popular myths — because their intention is not (only) to be impactful, but to be popular. And thats a hell of a difference ;-)
  • C: agreed. 3 people taking effective action (a la Argyris Theory in Use) has to be better than 90 people regurgitating a Sinekal soundbite that makes them smug they’re already being/doing good (Argyris Espoused Theory).
  • C: There is no need for business to exist. This aside, to presume business can’t be distinct from life in general is to presume that baseball rules and exam-taking follow the same rules. Ethically, all would cooperate. Instead, there are rules that prevent this cooperation. Business competes and resources are squandered in the process. As in baseball, as in exam-taking. Ethics and morals are social constructs. Good and bad are social constructs. How and where they are applied are also social constructs. Where we draw the line is a matter of consensus opinion. I happen to believe that private property and intellectual property are unethical. Countries and borders are immoral. Rhetoric helps to locate the line.
  • A: I happen to disagree strongly :-). What you suggest would lead to a relativist — if not nihilist — position very quickly, because ethics would always be contingent on whatever we define as “the group” that socially constructs “the rules”. When we look at moral philosophy, the attempt is always to establish “universal” understanding of what good and bad are — especially in respect to a teleological “normative morality” which I am arguing for here. What is “valuable” or what human life is about does not change when I am moving from the kitchen to my garage. Exactly as you say, you would seek to come to a conclusion about “private property” in general, based on a general system of ethics, not just in the context of who owns the baseball in the baseball game.
  • C: After the Blackrock letter to CEOs a lot have mixed up purpose with doing good or sustainability. While I do love the idea of a good society, until we all accept and strive for that, I prefer some sort of purpose over no purpose at all — as long as it is authentic and e.g. not turning a car company into an emission reduction ambassador.
  • A: Yes, very true. However, I am also thinking that it might be less about outcomes — and more about education and worldviews. I much sympathize with Aristotle’s perspective that what makes an action “good” is that the “actor is good”. So we might need to look at the character of people/companies more than whether they have purpose statements.
  • C: Purpose — moral — ethics is no longer a “nice to have”. Engineers must learn philosophy alongside maths, science.
  • A: Indeed, we will be thinking about education soon — there is some research that suggests we do not need courses in humanities for engineers, but we need to rethink what it means to do engineering in a humane way.
  • C: “There is only “Ethics IN Business”, not ethics OF business.” Thanks for highlighting that! I wish, business schools and also other universities having business ethics courses in their curriculum would teach it this way. “Unfortunately” then you also need to teach students moral and social philosophy as the broader framework. Most universities are not interested in an embedded approach to business ethics. It is way easier to teach it as an isolated subject, a single course or whatever. With that approach, however, we will not increase awareness. This approach rather purports the idea the two domains could be separated.
  • C: Many people don’t want a real clean up. Breaking with patterns is hard and not easily done. But it is key to development.We have collectivelly the need to open doors for new rooms of experience.
  • C: We must change the purpose of education as a reductionist system to pass exams, to one of learning behaviours, skills, knowledge and values enabling integration into not isolation from society.
  • C: What is so sad about this whole discussion is that I truly don’t think that today’s businesses even how to create change with integrity — whoever taught them? Not business schools! And if they do anything different than what has been done in the past, they risk losing their 7 figure salary — at what price will they start to create ‘good organizations’? The temptations to ‘smile and carry on’ are far too great! Taylorism and management by fear thrives! Until the schools, curriculum and educators change not much in business will change!
  • C: As you pointed out, change requires work and perseverance. and business schools themselves will not just abandon what made.them successful in the past (thus the comment on the.pandemic as a possible pivotal point). “change with integrity” is a great keyword. what about the transformation consultants (or whatever we like to call ourselves): do we already know how to co-create change with integrity ? and i’m not talking about the “woke” few, i’m addressing the vast majority. i think there even is a significant part of this community who might want to make a “quick buck” by helping to greenwash organisations. because it’s demanded and because they do not know (or do) better. though my plea is to consultants of all niches in the market to join hands, to integrate all available knowledge and skills, and learn (by doing) how to “change with integrity
  • C: The biggest problem I observe is that so little time is spent on thinking ‘What do we want to become’ — this question applies to both the client the consultant wants to help, and also the consultant — our time to reinvent ourselves has come quite some time ago. Continually reinventing ourselves (I say about every 5 yrs demands a major pivot) so we can stay current with the needs of the multi-generational world. The Boomers are still around and the Gen-Xers that seem to make up the majority of ‘seasoned & experienced’ consultants will make themselves obsolete if they don’t get with it!! The C-suite — mostly of Gen-Xers (or so it seems) have to let go of what they learned in the old B schools. ‘Change with Integrity’ to me, is looking to the future and leveraging lessons from the past, — NOT recreating the past. I hope that message is heard out there.
  • C: My team has been talking a lot lately internally about the fact that good leadership development programs should actually develop character, and not be afraid to claim that they do so. Similarly, good organizational purpose should clarify a moral stance, and clarify the behavioral activity required to “live into” the newly espoused morality of the organization. Just as an adolescent may have an eye-opening and clarifying realization that they truly believe something, and then spend the next 50 years narrowing the gap between that belief and their external behaviors, organizations should be encouraged to clarify their beliefs and then begin the long journey of narrowing the structural, operational, and behavioral gaps.
  • From my perspective, I think it’s fascinating to apply Komives’ model of leadership identity formation (https://vt.instructure.com/files/317600/download?download_frd=1) to established moral development frameworks like Kohlberg, etc. To continue using the language in the article, if we embrace the idea that high-character leadership is an exercise in being as moral and as intentional as possible when exercising influence, then leadership program design, whether using Komives’ model or other program scaffolding, is an exercise in internalizing morals AND ethics (mostly via reflection) while practicing ethical behaviors (mostly via a sequence of guided experiential activities).
  • C: This is all so true — and excellently scribed! Until leaders of our organisations reach a higher level of human development and / or society and organisations have a better process for ensuring only value-based or transpersonal leaders get to the top, we will not succeed. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced the change has to be in general education — to move from “knowledge and rational analysis” only, to incorporating the raising of awareness, developing appropriate behaviours and bringing values to full consciousness as mainstream. We need a revolution in education equivalent to what happened at the start of the industrial age. This will take a generation at least. That does not mean we should not work in other areas in the meantime. There is much to be done right now at the individual leader level and within organisations. We need to identify a core pool of early adopters.
  • Regarding collective character, as someone who spent a decade doing leadership development inside religious non-profits, my particular quest has been to learn how organizations can take the best of what religion developed (1. having a clear moral value proposition, and 2. creating ethical norms that are internalized by a community) and applying those techniques (minus coercion) to develop and strengthen organizational cultures. My goal is to develop cultures that are experienced by organizational members as life-giving communities to which they are invited to join and contribute. The challenge I find myself finally learning to be honest about is that when I [reluctantly] admit that some level of hierarchy/power difference is practically required to build a community with shared moral purpose, the morality of leaders becomes a central, critical issue. To restate the message of your article, this is why it’s so sad when leaders effectively outsource their character by engaging in purpose, DE&I, ESG, etc. box-checking activity.
  • C: So many people just dismantling the real meaning and value of PURPOSE… So sad to see. At the same time so nice to see brands just getting it and changing their core of strategy…. Starting to be much more meaningful and taking care of their people, their society…. We should also show the super examples so people know what is NOT working with Purpose and what is indeed working with Purpose!
  • C: I like two practical examples very much. The entrepreneurs behind are new mentors for me:
    a) Bodo Janssen with Upstalsboom and Upstalsboom Kultur & Entwicklung is following a philosophical and psychological way for development. He is realising what Bergman (newwork) was saying in the core.
    b) Jonathan Moeller is realising the #openspace company with foryouandyourcustomers using art and conciousness development based e.g. on Jean Gebser.
    These examples are key in my work to bring a holistic development based on a language that everybody understands and allows to invite to a new playground.
  • C: Makes me curious about where the anger towards academics and religious comes from, bitter experience? Substituting flowery linguistic constructs for meaningful action is surely common for all the players on the field? Actually, the flowery language is a kind of meaningful action. It is action that changes the appearance without triggering any other actions in the organization. If you have your car painted it does not change anything about the way it drives…but it might make its resale value higher :) It seems to me that the notion of driving purpose into the DNA of a culture requires all of these things. The point might be that they need to be connected and consistent. And I will add that a talent acquisition strategy is perhaps the most critical strategic lever. Often undervalued in orgs.
  • A: Thanks for the thoughtful points! I most certainly have no anger at all at academics or religious people — I do love both. :-) Where I am getting frustrated is when they fail to have impact. When silos are being created that serve only internal ends or unduly diminish the impact that science could have on practice. In this context, my observation with many academics is that collaboration is very limited in general — it sometimes seems that many academics do not learn how to truly collaborate as part of their development — and especially between disciplines — which is often even disincentivised — and even less so between theory and practice. It seems the positivist “wet dream” of the “detached science” has led to a lack of caring for the human condition which is being replaced by an ephemeral self-referentialism of the academic class. Lost in a game for citations and rankings, some seem to have lost a desire or sense of responsibility to make the world “out there” better. Here, I am especially referring to the necessity to operationalise business ethics in the very structures and processes of the business, not to just write up theoretical principles. In the board rooms I have been, flowery language has helped little ;-)
  • C: These days there is no excuse (certainly in Western liberal democracies) for academics lacking work experience, they just need to better reflect on their working lives. After all, do they not apply their knowledge and practice their skills in a contemporary capitalist institution? Academics just need to challenge the content they deliver in the context they deliver it.
  • C: Purpose seems to be about both motivation and guidance. If it is narrow then it may be pointed in a direction that loses value or has negative side effects. If it is broad then it needs guidance. That puts a torpedo below the waterline of excessive focus on “why?
  • C: ”Everything is politics. Putting purpose in the center of the model is, of course, politics. It is a naif or self-interested mechanism that tries to hide the political dimension of any human organization by pretending that a common aim will align individuals beyond particular conflicts of interest. Of course, all this narrative collapses when conflict arises and either “the purpose” or its particular concretion is put under question. So purpose “creates” alignment… until it does not. This way purpose alignment is a temporary self-fulfilling prophecy doomed to failure. What creates alignment, according to our research and experience, are specific objectives (not necessarily shared by everyone). We think that the coexistence of diverse values and purposes is not only desirable in terms of freedom and creativity but, to some extent, unavoidable. We think that a collective with a single purpose and a single set of values is not a utopia but a dystopia.
  • So, it is purpose pointless? No, it is not. Purpose is very important. Our claim is that purpose will not fulfill the promises that both mainstream and “alternative” management literature announces. Yet, it will play other important organizational roles. Ultimately, purpose is connected to what Nils Brunsson calls mechanisms of hope. Purpose keeps the ideal of the rational organization alive. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/nor-shared-values-purpose-align-your-organization-blanco-gracia/
  • Susan Basterfield made me see that the word “politics” is too negatively connotated in English, so, if you want, let us talk about Moral/Ethics Philosophy and Political Philosophy. While Aristotle put first the polis to the individual, the “ethics” turn has been pushing societal problems back to the private sphere, the one of how you as an individual engage with other individuals on ethical dialogue, and then with all the stakeholders. And you do not say it, but maybe you agree that other non-humans stakeholders should “have a word” (i.e. Latour’s Parliament of things). So the problem of polluting the river or employing people with slave conditions is MOSLTY an ethical problem to be tackled by ethical committees among particular stakeholders, so they find the way of how to conduct their selves? For each river? I do not say that ethics overlap at some point with politics. We want ethics and virtue in politics. Aristotle too. A political regime cannot be values-agnostic! In fact, to have that ethical dialogues happen and HAVING CONSEQUENCES, we need a certain political regime to be possible. What makes possible to ethics be relevant and not an add-on is precisely politics.
  • If your business turns over enough money to make a profit then are we good? Do you care about the people you employ? Do they care about you?
  • Imagine if you really cared about them, looked after them, treated them with compassion and kindness, protected them by refusing to recruit dark triad personality types. Imagine feeding them with nice food and laughing together a lot. Listening to their stories and helping them through the tough times. Together. Imagine that they go home and say how much they enjoyed their day. Bringing those laughs home to share with their family. Lifting their spirits because they are topped up enough to share. Imagine them socialising and sharing those laughs with their friends?
  • And then imagine you would engage with your local community and create a “third place” where people can get together. And you invited your suppliers to come along. And you used ethical products without unnecessary packaging… If companies did things like this do we believe it would start to make a difference? I do.
  • In Romania they have a very well established network of NGOs in their communities. One takes public libraries and turns them into social hubs for example. The pubs, bars, salons, libraries, halls, community centres all have a role to play. It should be part of everyone’s journey to spend time there. Growing up around people.
  • And of course (said more simply) we know — making money ethically to share/pay our people so they can support their families is a moral obligation. Thanks for the post.
  • Focus on customer and employee centric missions!
  • C: I can picture you throwing your slipper at the tv as you write this. As delightful as your proposal is I suspect without a regulatory machine with consistent global teeth it ain’t gonna happen. We should ask ourselves: how much tax would be paid if the system was voluntary.
  • A: that is a great point!! It really is a good question. I was almost thinking we should tax organisations that fail to live up to “full purpose” :-)
  • C: Long-term vs. short term. When all of our metrics to judge performance are measured over years or shorter instead of decades, all the outside pressure on an organisation will push it towards the notion that ethics is a luxury that is ill afforded? You either have to be free from outside influence, and or your own paycheck isn’t dependent on short term results?
  • A: I would suggest that there is a notional difference between “sustainability” (long-term thinking) and “responsibility” (ethical thinking). I might think long-term, and still see human or natural resources simply as means to an end. In terms of outside pressure, of course it depends on who is pushing — if that is a single-minded shareholder and you have no other sources of (required) funding, and no regulation to offset that pressure, indeed things quickly become problematic!
  • C: It’s getting beyond silly, more and more crazy! What’s so challenging is that there is no acknowledgement that all social systems are inherently purposeful and fulfilling an implicit contracted purpose — making ‘trade-offs’ continuously but which of course mostly are not made explicit or revealed…grappling with these disconnects between the implicit and explicit purposes is both where the ‘noise’ and the liberation lies…wonder if that’s what role the CPO will play? In dis-covering and surfacing this? I have a hypothesis…
  • C: This resonates very much with the Emerys’ Open Systems Theory and the practices defined there for cultural change, especially how companies ought to be a place where people bring their whole self and get these six psychological work requirements fulfilled: https://twitter.com/trondhjort/status/1485268920655298569
  • A lot of things happened in the STS space after Trist and the 70s. A sort of fragmentation (which is normal for a popular approach, I suppose) into American, Lowland, Scandinavian, Australian etc. The latter is where OST was born and takes a more socio-ecological scope, which then includes theory and practices for searching for a desirable future for all in an organisation (community, company, government, etc.). A good source is Merrelyn Emery’s paper from 2000: https://twitter.com/trondhjort/status/1415996797512790017
  • A: Thanks for the link! We will also interview Mike Jackson at some point as I find his attempt at framing the most important approaches to system work hugely compelling.
  • C: Reading his book at the moment. which do include OST. Also, his “colleague” Robert Flood had some interactions with Merrelyn Emery in a dialogue where OST, Critical Systems and System Dynamics was compared. https://www.academia.edu/10146409/A_Maturing_of_Systems_Thinking_Evidence_from_Three_Perspectives
  • Merrelyn Emery: “The basic unit of society is the group, not the individual.” Also, have you read Emery and Ackoff’s “On Purposeful Systems”? Seems relevant. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1327086.On_Purposeful_Systems I would also add Edwards Deming’s “Out of the Crisis”
  • C: All of the symptoms are what happens when the critical core constraint has not been identified. Recruiting for culture does not address the critical constraint. In fact, it might make matters worse. I think you are getting really close talking about the ability to handle complexity. That is a function of growth. Elliot Jaques and Robert Kegan come to mind. Clemens Dachs and Moritz Hornung are also close but have fallen into some of the same traps of traditional psychology. It’s a fixed versus growth mindset discussion. Despite that, their solution in #cellculture is one of the best ones I have seen. The metaphor is certainly very helpful.
  • C: “Repent all ye peddlers of bullshit. Renounce your sinful ways and embrace the light.”
  • C: ‘Passionate systemati’….a mystical order whose tenets are untestable and whose clients often wear the ‘stigmata’ rather than themselves.
  • C: The best I ever heard in workplace reengineeeing, in response to job loss, was, “It’s for the greater good.”
  • C: Indeed, the worst for me is, coming from a discipline as deep as philosophy, when self-proclaimed management-thinkers use concepts like wu wei (無為) or dao (道) because they sound exotic and draw potentially more attention. Usually, there’s not much substance to it, let alone an adequate (historical and philosophical) understanding of these concepts in the first place. I can imagine it is difficult for many to sort the wheat from the chaff, especially in this area. I personally could not recommend any book on it (there are some interesting journal publications out there though, which I’m citing myself).
  • C: I second you, and observe the phenomenon of fashion in thinking, etc. each wave bringing a new parade show with new models ( concepts, words, etc.) pretending original contributions to thinking. The reality is that those breakthroughs exist but they are rare and emerge form a thinking which doesn’t follow the trend but take inspiration from fundamental works. I like you highlight the presence of dichotomy. When I started to study in the West thanks to various scholarships, I discovered what I called a “binary thinking”, it is X or Y ( not to say that sometimes X and Y were artificially distinguished). Coming form an oriental culture, I grew up with the existence of paradoxes, where X and Y May coexist, May need each other to exit, etc. This difference between a binary way of thinking versus a paradoxical way of observing humans and the world is crucial. “Purpose-mania” and the holistico-system obsession are symptoms of the limits of the binary paradigm to explain human realities. Hence, the need to make “the squaring of the circle”. The “paradoxical paradigm” which already exist, has excellent explanatory power.
  • C: I love that you are advocating for a little humility from the high priests of systems thinking and related disciplines and theories. In the midst of all the gobbledygook we are reading, the essential gems of these ways of thinking are being lost. We are constructing more and more elaborate theories to explain the mess we are in. I believe in simplicity. We are in this mess because whenever we are living in a community we have a tendency to accumulate and protect our power. Our personal decisions, actions and interactions are motivated by this more than by the shared purposes and collective goals of the community we belong to, whether this is a team, an organization, or a society. And we at times fool ourselves by believing that our quest for more personal power is precisely so we can help the system move towards its collective goals. We are masters at self deception. So let’s accept this reality about ourselves. And let’s focus on finding ways to organize ourselves (in all sectors of society) to protect the collective good from this innate tendency we will always have. If we accept this as a binding constraint, what might organizations look like? What might systems of governance look like?
  • A: I do feel the same — we are desperately seeking to control by reifying “yet another theory” — even if certainty is attained by postulating that uncertainty is everywhere. It seems to be missing the point. It creates another “truth out there”, rather than meaning “in here”. Like you say, there are some basic tenets in society that require inquiry — especially how we use and abuse power. Otherwise rationalising becomes just another escape, or an excuse for inaction.
  • C: You mistakenly mush 100 years of systems dynamics work that came out of MIT (Bush, Weiner, Shannon, Forrester, Senge, Sterman and later global academics like Pearl) with pop-addled social/political activist PR. One school of systems thinking is on a solid epistemological and mathematical footing. The other uses crap science to obfuscate a lack of evidence. This isn’t an argument against socialism or political activism. It’s an argument against people who don’t actually understand the limits of systems modeling, but use it to justify policy recommendations. Odd, counterintuitive things happen when you don’t understand systems modeling. For example, more accurate models of cloud cover (albedo), which sound like a good thing, have made the latest climate models less accurate. The coal folks will use this to say climate models are garbage and the climate activists will claim the end of the world. Neither are right. Our ability to understand complex systems is both amazing and remarkably limited. We can’t succumb to false precision and need to assume that a Rogue Wave of disruption will inevitably follow. As I discuss in ROGUE WAVES, when we assume disruption, we can shape the future to our benefit. Bit.ly/rogue-waves
  • A: Great points — of course, I was hoping for some passionate contradiction ;-). That said, I personally dont think it is quite as simple. I dont believe that people using system thinking dont know what they are doing, nor that the systems are necessarily too limited — I will argue that what we need is epistemic fluency, not only better system theory. Any attempt to frame human systems with “systemic” mathematical models or engineering frameworks or biological analogies or quantum physics is intrinsically limited and should never be uphold as “the only way” of analysis. In my experience, at best it can add another perspective, at worst it detracts from what — in organisational human systems — is most important ie the ability of people to consciously work with each other rather than rationalise into pseudo-scientist concepts… ;-)
  • C: This is a very powerful essay, much of which I agree with… and a very helpful discussion on business, morality and ethics and the difference between meaning an purpose relating to individualism and community. The only weakness is your mashing together proponents of “systems thinking” “complex adaptive systems” and “ecosystems” proponents as if they all part of some cult of wholeness or that they represent even the same perspectives. That’s just simply wrong. And weakens this essay because those I work with or follow on CAS and sensemaking (Snowden, Klein, Pendleton-Julian, Juarrero etc.) do not come close to fitting your description. You do not do justice to their thinking, which, I suspect, aligns with much of this essay, including a disdain for the purpose movement. They are not about finding “wholeness,” but about how to act and engage in an often complex world, having a moral direction/vector without predefined linear goals, taking responsibility for inevitable unintended consequences, combining theory and practice etc. Dig deeper there.
  • A: Thanks for the thoughtful comments! Yes, absolutely — there is undue simplification in the systems piece (and probably in all pieces). Yet, it was meant to provide an opinionated perspective — a bit like a fool’s view which always contains a grain of truth. Especially, even if we cannot group all of the actors together, I do believe there is often cultish behaviour (especially ingroup-outgroup mentality) and undue normativism, exacerbated by scientist lingo. And many vocal proponents have not really investigated deeply enough into how systems theory could find useful application in human systems. That all said, as I recall is also mentioned, a system perspective can certainly enhance our sense-making and understanding… That said, certainly always more to dig deeper! :-)
  • A lot of bad stuff is done by focusing solely on holism, probably worse than reductionism. One of my greatest learning from systems thinking is: “Analysis focuses on structure; it reveals how things work. Synthesis focuses on function; it reveals why things operate as they do. Therefore, analysis yields knowledge; synthesis yields understanding.” -Ackoff. But, we also need to realise that closed systems are a constrained open system and that social systems are inherently open and we need to cater for that in our designs, be it work systems or organisations. Open systems thinking is very different from especially mechanical thinking, but also organicism.
  • This paper concludes that “a system is best defined as a cognitive construct for making sense of complexity and the organization of knowledge and that contemporary system thinking is best identified as the ethical, scientific pursuit of knowledge using the socio-ecological (open) systems frame.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229729730_Analysis_synthesis_systems_thinking_and_the_scientific_method_Rediscovering_the_importance_of_open_systems
  • Core here is that all these sessions are syn as DP2, i.e. as a community of equals. A decent intro to that and the two-stage model its part of is this paper: https://stsroundtable.com/wp-content/uploads/Open-Systems-Theory.deGuerre.2016.pdf
  • The heriatage with the Tavistock is sociotechnical, but what they saw after the action research in Norway in the 60s showed that the scope had to be widened to include the environment, hence the focus became socio-ecological. This is also shown in the Tavistock Anthologies, available here: http://moderntimesworkplace.com/archives/archives.html
  • C: I use variations on Canadian ecologist “Buzz” Holling’s adaptive cycle to help my EMBA students make sense of their experience. It all began with my managerial experience that crisis was often an essential component of change and the abductive insight that if organizational dynamics were similar to those of ecosystems, then crisis would be a matter of course….
  • I don’t think we are postmodern. High-modern or liquid modern, perhaps, with all the attendant anxieties of either. Saying that… The postmodern horror relates to the disintegration of traditional institutions and associated purpose and meaning, to be replaced with purpose and meaning constructed by modern institutions (i.e. corporations) or those that reject the narratives of modern corporations and traditions (i.e. new-age spirituality, conspiracy theories, etc). That’s certainly an event horizon we don’t have to squint at to see.
  • Maybe the answer is metamodernism. Please excuse the academese. While this movement [Christian Renewalism] can be seen as, and has an obvious aspect of, an “antiirony” sincerity, it also has a more subtle dimension of balancing irony and sincerity, scepticism and faith, performance and authenticity. In philosophy, Vermeulen and den Akker (2010) have attempted to outline the contours of this emerging structure of feeling through the concept of metamodernism. Drawing from Hutcheon’s argument that postmodernity’s moment has passed (Hutcheon 2002: 165–166), metamodernity is an alternative to the intrinsically meaningless hedonistic ecstasy or existential anguish of Lipovetsky’s hypermodernist society (Lipovetsky, Charles et al. 2005) or the haphazardness, evanescence and anonymity of Kirby’s digimodernist society (Kirby 2009). Arguing that the “metamodern is constituted by the double-bind of a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all” (Vermeulen and Van Den Akker 2010: 6), they suggest a series of strategies that combine serious, sincere solutions and an intellectual awareness of irony and scepticism has emerged in the 21st Century art world. They argue that metamodernism is expressed in an emergent neoromantic sensibility, concluding that metamodernism sits ‘hypersensitively’ between modern utopian art and literature and dystopian postmodern equivalents.

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Disruptive thinker, amateur poet and passionate global C-level transformation leader with over 20 years of experience in cross-cultural strategic change

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Otti Vogt

Otti Vogt

Disruptive thinker, amateur poet and passionate global C-level transformation leader with over 20 years of experience in cross-cultural strategic change